Antiwar protesters in a PR fix

As battle images flow home, the US public rallies for GIs, not against the war.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the battle to influence public opinion, the antiwar movement's worst enemy may prove to be the television.

Daily reports from the front lines put the troops foremost in American thought - an omnipresence that makes it easier for taxi drivers and hairdressers, white-collar workers and televangelists, to sympathize with the servicemen and -women, and to argue that protesters should be supporting those fighting in Iraq instead of holding rallies to oppose the war.

Two weeks into the attack on Iraq, critics of the antiwar movement are becoming more outspoken, as emotions on both sides run high. The insults lobbed at antiwar demonstrators range from Boston hecklers calling them "traitors" to Minnesota's governor proposing that arrested activists should cover their own law-enforcement costs.

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None of this has dampened the resolve of war protesters, who still draw tens of thousands to rallies. But the view on the home front seems to be souring - just as some troops overseas are growing slightly more tolerant of opposition.

"The backlash can be seen to some degree in the percentage of people who support the war effort ... which suggests that the antiwar movement is not winning many friends or new supporters," says Melvin Small, a historian at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Roughly two-thirds of the country currenty favors the war. And while many Americans - including critics of the antiwar movement - agree that protesters have the right to express their views, they don't necessarily want to hear what those views are.

A national survey of TV viewers by media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates last week found that only 16 percent of the 2,034 people polled online felt strongly or somewhat strongly that antiwar coverage should be a priority in local newscasts.

'A throwback to the '60s'

Antiwar organizers argue there's been a reflexive rush of support for the president now that the war has begun - and that the wellspring of approval is mostly due to an initial unblinking nationalism. War supporters, in turn, have used strong terms for dissenters, deriding them as "disgusting" and "selfish."

"I just wonder how much Saddam is paying them," says Charlie Lore, a businessman and former Vietnam protester who got stuck in a crowd of demonstrators in Manhattan last Thursday.

Even those in the mainstream who oppose the war often argue that protests are inappropriate with the conflict under way.

Others wonder if the demonstrators understand the issues driving US military action. Watching a Boston rally that drew an estimated 25,000 protesters last Saturday, Jim Cavan says he supports the war - and questions the critics' motivations. "I feel like they're doing it for fashion, and that it's a throwback to the 60s and that no one understands what's really going on," he says. "If you're going to protest, offer a solution. Don't just protest for the sake of protesting."

Professor Small, author of "Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America's Hearts and Minds," suggests that the war's real-time media coverage is influencing public opinion, increasing support for troops.

Among nonprotesters' recent concerns are that disruptive demonstrations might hamper emergency vehicles from reaching hospitals - and compromise security by distracting police forces from terrorist threats.

Americans, says Mr. Small, are historically skeptical about tools of protest, like civil disobedience. Yet now that activists feel they've exhausted other means of getting the country's attention, such tools are becoming more prominent. Civil-disobedience workshops sponsored by legal and peace groups are packed. And antiwar groups are calling for demonstrations next week at federal buildings and defense-related organizations - rather than for stopping traffic - in hopes of keeping their cause in the foreground of public thought.

The troops' view on protests

Those who protest insist, for the most part, that they support the troops. But cries of "Bring them home!" are all but drowned out by ubiquitous war coverage.

Over in the Gulf, news of protests often does reach those in uniform, who have mixed views about the demonstrations. At an air base in Kuwait, some servicemen agree that demonstrators have the right to oppose the war - and appreciate the support some offer the troops.

But others argue that, given the chain of command, there's little distinction between opposing the administration and opposing those in combat. "If they are not backing up those that are in charge of us, then in the long run, they're not backing us up," says Tyler Aholt, a member of a Naval construction force called the Seabees. "I've considered if some of the protesters even understand the whole idea of war: Without war, how can you have peace?"

Still, servicemen on this base are more tolerant of protesters than they were before the war, when the antiwar movement was seen as dragging out the diplomatic process - and forcing a delay that kept them in the desert longer. "A lot of people might say [protesting] sends the wrong message to Iraq," says Maj. Tony Figueroa, a C-130 rescue pilot. "But I believe it sends the message that we're a free country."

Staff writers Alexandra Marks in New York and Ben Arnoldy in Kuwait contributed.

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